The world’s first artificial satellite, Sputnik-1, was launched in 1957, marking the beginning of the remote sensing era. Since then, Earth’s observation from space has radically changed boosted by the increased computing, data processing and storage capabilities, as well as unparalleled progress in sensors.
The barriers to entering the Earth observation market are low as never before, which encourages more and more companies to join space exploration by launching their own small satellite constellations. EOS Data Analytics, the trusted global provider of AI-powered satellite imagery analytics, is also about to expand its satellite market presence and deploy the first agriculture-focused satellite fleet EOS SAT into Low Earth orbit. You can find more info here.
The era of new constellations
Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellite fleets aren’t a new concept. In the 1990s, Globalstar, Iridium, and a handful of other satellite telecom companies bet big on LEO constellations to provide global connectivity. It didn’t pay off due to high costs, bulky terminals, and expensive service that gained low demand. Currently, LEOs are making a comeback into an entirely new world with high customer demand for bandwidth, cutting-edge satellite technologies, surging investment, and new, more viable business models.
Low Earth orbit satellites are miniature compared to Geostationary Orbit (GEO) satellites and orbit the Earth at much fewer altitudes of 500 to 1,200 kilometers. To provide global coverage, a lot of such smallsats are required that’s why they come in fleets, ranging from dozens to several thousands of units. Since LEOs are closer to Earth, they offer lower latency, in other words, data is passing between points within a satellite network much faster compared to a terrestrial connection.
The advantages promised by LEO constellations enable a wide range of applications, including:
- Mobile services and broadband Internet. Mobile services are currently represented by joined Globalstar and Apple efforts in providing emergency SOS messaging to iPhone users. In the niche of broadband Internet, SpaceX’s Starlink takes the lead. As of November 2022, there were around 3,200 operational Starlink satellites in orbit offering low-latency, high-speed Internet access to rural clients and mobile users (e.g. Stalink Maritime for cruise ships). Other competitive providers are OneWeb which has struggled to complete its 648-satellite constellation and recently partnered with Eutelsat to speed up; and Amazon with its Project Kuiper, a planned 3,000-unit fleet set for 50%-deployment by 2026.
- Navigation. Traditionally, satellite navigation relied on Medium Earth orbit (MEO) and GEO satellites, such as the US Navstar GPS or European Galileo. However, many are exploring LEOs potential for becoming a position, navigation, and timing (PNT) system that would provide more quality service at fewer costs. ESA is planning an in-orbit demo of its LEO-PNT project within the FutureNav program: a fleet of 6 to 12 satellites that would produce powerful, reliable signals that can reach places where current satnav signals can’t. As we move into the new world of autonomous cars and ships, UAVs, robots, Smart cities, and the IoT, the requirements for positioning are growing from m-scale to cm-scale or even higher. And LEOs are believed to have everything it takes to meet the current demand for ubiquitous coverage and connectivity.
- Remote sensing and Earth observation. The low altitude of LEOs creates perfect conditions for capturing Earth pictures from space. With optical imaging, it allows to achieve better spatial resolution under a similar payload specification. For radar and LIDAR sensors, it can translate into an improved signal-to-noise ratio. Ultimately, the quality of output data is higher, and the overall cost of satellite manufacturing and launch is much more affordable. Maxar, ICEYE, Planet, Airbus, ISRO, L3Harris, and dozens of other space companies and agencies are currently supplying satellite imagery from their Low Earth orbit constellations.
Current tech achievements keep revolutionizing the space industry, increasing the benefits that LEO satellites provide to end users.
LEOs designed for Earth observation are growing smaller in size, while still being able to carry advanced remote sensing cameras and produce high-resolution imagery. The smallest sat launched to date is 0.25U (1U stands for 10 cm x 10 cm x 11.35 cm, the standard dimensions of small satellites weighing under 10 kg). EOS SAT constellation that’s about to be launched will consist of 7 minisatellites, i.e. satellites under 180 kg, that will follow a low Earth sun-synchronous orbit. This fleet is an example of how recent tech advancements can help private companies launch their own satellite missions and provide a full data cycle, which is something that was previously reserved for major space agencies and business giants.
LEO constellations, AI, and sustainability
Now that private space companies are increasingly putting their own sats into orbit, they can target specific industries. For example, EOS SAT is designed for agriculture and forestry applications. By 2025, when the fleet reaches full capacity, its total daily capacity is expected to be 8.6-9.4 million square kilometers with revisits every 5-6 days. These satellites will cover 100% of countries with the largest areas of croplands and forestlands, plus 100% of farmlands in the top 20 countries having the most agricultural potential.
On top of capturing RGB (natural color) shots of cultivated fields, EOS SAT optical sensors will register more spectral bands (13 in total) that contain valuable information about vegetation. Among them are NIR, which is used to detect chlorophyll content and soil moisture; and SWIR, which helps pinpoint water-related issues with crops or fields, check the produce quality and its maturation stage. Ultimately, EOS SAT’s spectral measurements can be used to calculate numerous vegetation indices and get insights into various aspects of monitored objects.
As already mentioned, EOSDA is going to ensure a full data cycle: from image generation to its transmission to the ground, AI-powered processing, and analysis. Raw EOS SAT data will be processed using proprietary machine-learning algorithms to create fully functional products and services for end users.
With the power of AI and exclusive high-resolution satellite imagery, the company is planning to expand its sustainability efforts. Reduction of CO2 emissions, elimination of pesticide and fertilizer overuse, preservation of water and land resources, and cutting back on energy consumption are a few of the many smart ag benefits that EOS SAT constellation is about to enable.